Hands on: Google App Inventor for Android

The latest beta project from Google Labs lets you create mobile apps with a drag-and-drop graphical user interface.

Google's new App Inventor for Android comes with an ambitious goal: Allow anyone to create simple apps for their mobile phone. The tool, still in invitation-only beta, offers a graphical drag-and-drop programming interface instead of requiring that apps be written in Java.

I received access to the beta a couple of weeks ago and tested many of the available programming functions, using both the built-in Android device emulator and a loaner Droid X smartphone. I ran the browser-based tool on both Mac OS X and Windows 7. I also walked through a number of the available tutorials.

Apps Inventor

Even with a visual interface, devising complex applications is not trivial.

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An easier way to program?

Now, let's be clear: Drag-and-drop programming will not turn an average user into an expert coder. Even with a visual interface, devising complex applications is not trivial.

But just as you don't need to create pivot tables in order to get value from Excel, you don't need to be creating, say, a full-fledged fantasy football app in order to use App Inventor.

MIT professor Hal Abelson, currently on sabbatical in order to work on the App Inventor project, cites one student-created app that simply delivers a text auto-response when the user is behind the wheel ("Please don't text me now, I'm driving.") as an example of what App Inventor was designed to facilitate.

In other words, the goal here is not to turn the majority of Android owners into professional developers, but to give them access to more-robust phone customization than is currently available.

However, for those who are knowledgeable coders but not yet experienced with Android, App Inventor could make it more attractive to start developing for the platform, since this lessens the need to learn a lot of particulars. If you already have the skills to outline the steps needed to make your app come to life, you don't have to worry about what code creates a button or what syntax is needed to pull a name up from the contacts database. If you can write good "pseudocode" -- basic instructions in English describing each step of what your app needs to do -- you should be able to use App Inventor.

There is a learning curve -- even visual interfaces require some investment in time to discover just how they work. It's less daunting than, say, learning Java, but there is a time investment, especially if you want to become proficient in creating applications that let you do more than tap a button to play a sound.

Sharon Machlis demonstrates the two main parts that make up Google's App Inventor: a browser-based design screen and a Java-based Blocks Editor.

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